A birthday unlike any other

Three days ago, I decided to cross the Malaysian part of Borneo (and Brunei, landlocked in the Malaysian section). A short adventure of more than 1300 kilometers, which is also the distance between Rome and Paris, but which would require almost twice as much time: the roads across the Borneoan jungle are definitely not Europe’s highways.

All of this, hitchhiking.


Because I love it, simple as that.

I still fail to understand the magnitude of the preconceived and systematic fears about hitchhiking. I understand it involves several risks and dangers, but I’m astonished to see how those apprehensions are based on little, very little. Some experiences, encounters with the unknown, information and common sense seem to me a reliable antidote if the journey had to turn sour.


So this is the birthday present I gave myself this year: encountering Borneoans. Because that’s what hitchhiking is all about. To create unpredictable human experiences and to exchange bits of our everyday lives in an unequaled authenticity. To provoke destiny, basically.

I only did 200 kilometers on the first day, but I ended the night at my two new friends’ place, talking about how we see and experience the world around a few cold ones.

And I’m not even talking about the Chinese family who gave me a ride (despite six kids in their car) and came back a few minutes after leaving me on the tarmac: I was invited to join them to visit their family and 91 years old great-grand-mother.

Two days later, a friendly chemist was telling me all about his last year pilgrimage to Mecca. I have to admit that wearing a tank top to fend off the heat, I was not expecting to be picked up by a Muslim car. I was especially not expecting its driver to offer an hour of jolly conversation before buying me cold water and a soft drink.

Least of all, I was not expecting him to slip a rumpled banknote in our goodbye handshake, smiling and insisting: “For your food, and your travels.”

Later, unfolding the banknote, I saw for the first time what a 100 ringgits bill (25 US dollars) looks like. Even the ATMs don’t distribute them!

Three days, twelve drivers and over a thousand kilometers later, I’m almost done. A few truck drivers speaking broken English, but smiling like children, trail runners, two veiled sisters. Christians, Muslims, Buddhists…

And one Hindu, who drove me in his brand new BMW until Brunei, tiny petromonarchy living under Sharia law. Born in India, raised in Africa and having made his fortune on Borneo with his drilling companies (Malaysia’s and Brunei’s economies are both based on oil and gas) and in India by being the sole prawn provider for Wal-Mart, he was an endless source of general knowledge and captivating conversation.

So for my birthday, I’m roaming around in Bandar Seri Begawan, capital city of a country totalizing only 400 000 inhabitants and less than a third of Beijing City’s area. Technically ruled by Islamic law and one of the richest multibillionaires on the planet – who is living in the world’s 2nd biggest palace behind Beijing’s Forbidden City – the place seems a little unreal.


I certainly won’t drink beer to celebrate tonight, as selling/buying alcohol is punishable by flogging around here… but having the chance to experience all these unimaginable encounters and to be in wonderful company once again, I enjoy more than ever a birthday unlike any others.

And I’ll leave tomorrow, hitchhiking again, looking forward to all these tiny moments of wonder for another year!



P.S. : Before going to sleep last night, a Czech met at the hostel offered me the rest of his whisky bottle as he was about to leave it behind today. I think my priorities might have changed.


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